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What It’s Really Like to Be a Cabana Boy

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At age 18, I did what a lot of college students do on their summers off: I got a job. Living in Southern California, luxury resorts were nearly as common as that surgery where they inject fat from your thighs into your face. As many high-school friends who worked in hospitality had told me, jobs at these beachfront palaces paid a hell of a lot better than the Abercrombie at South Coast Plaza, so I applied. After four back-to-back interviews at a cattle call for seasonal employees, I was hired as a cabana boy at the resort’s pool and grill. Here’s what that summer was actually like.

The Work Was Pretty Demeaning

We circled the pool with different amenities on the hour: smoothies, nuts, and, at 3PM, Evian misters. I literally had to approach a complete stranger and ask if they would like to be “misted.” With Evian. Most people were embarrassed for me and politely declined, while some grabbed the chilled metallic bottle and gave themselves a quick spritz. Others, though, made me spray their body up and down while they laid in the sun. It was pretty weird, and I generally tried to take my fifteen minute break at 2:55 every day to avoid it.

The most annoying part of the job was actually just walking. When you passed a guest in the hallway, you had to stop, put your arms behind your back, and bow while saying “Good morning” etc. Getting from the pool to the front desk, the length of maybe half a football field, could take up to 20 minutes at peak hours.

While most days were busy, some were really, really slow. There would be no more discarded towels to gather or water cups to fill, but we weren’t allowed to stand still. The owner didn’t like us to “just stand there.” So, instead, we were instructed to do laps. You walked around the perimeter of the pool acting as though you were busy and waited for someone to ask you to get something. It was such a relief when someone stopped you. One day, a guest asked for a magazine and I had to go to the grocery store to retrieve it, because our gift shop didn’t stock it. Thereafter, I offered magazines to guests all the time so that I was spared another lap in the sun.

Guests Treated Me Badly

Once, I asked a man if he needed anything and he replied that he would like to know what year Prince’s Purple Rain was released as soon as possible. This was pre-iPhone, so I had to call an annoyed guest receptionist with Google access in order to learn the answer (FYI: 1984).

Some people really reamed me out because the bar forgot the Cointreau floater in their margarita. Some people yelled at me because I had procured their favorite cigarettes but they had left the pool and when I called their room to ask if they’d like the pack to be delivered there, their husbands, who thought they had quit smoking, answered the call. A lot of people just yelled at me because they were paying $10,000 a night to stay in a bungalow. OK.

You learned quickly how to diffuse tense situations and it was actually really good training for life: so many people will be jerks to you for no fault of your own but you have a choice in how to respond to them. I cried my first week. By the end of the summer, I had an indestructible smile.

The Tips Were Mind-Blowing (and Had Zero Correlation to the Tasks)

Business travelers generally tipped best, especially while showing off for their clients, so cabana hosts fought to greet them first. There was some logic to “sections” but generally I took care of who I greeted. The greeter, who may have done nothing more than hand them a towel and lead them to an empty chair, nearly always got the tip. In fact, many people would rush to greet guests and then abandon them because they got the money/were awful humans.

Twenties were pretty standard. My biggest tip of the summer came from a German man (not all Europeans are bad tippers!) who asked me to tilt an umbrella: $100. Even though I was excited, I generally kept things like this to myself out of fear a co-worker would go fishing by their chair and smother them with attention. And, because, y’know, I wanted the money!

You Knew LOTS of Creepy Things about Guests

Everyday when I got in, I leafed through a thick manifest. It detailed every guest who was staying at the property along with their room number. There were several VIP codes (none of which were “VIP” because duh) and you looked out for those: everything from Person We Disappointed Last Time to, say, Host of Famous Reality Singing Competition. If a celebrity was staying under an alias, their real name would also be listed. This was helpful to know, as well, because you were also instructed to report paparazzi, which I had to do from time to time. Most of the celebrities just wanted to chill, in their glasses and hats, and I actually felt pretty responsible for their relaxation.

The best part of the manifest, though, was the notes. We were told to report pretty much any details about a guest’s personal life that we learned while serving them. You wrote them down on little notecards and slid them in a box. Usually the notes were pretty odd but benign: You knew that Miss Hanson in Room 206 liked iced tea extra cold but also that her daughter Josephine was studying Comparative Literature at Wesleyan. Sometimes they were really interesting reads. One guy, who lived at the resort all summer, had multiple pages including a drug-induced shower slip, a fight with his wife, a fight with a woman who was not his wife, etc.

The Uniform Wasn’t That Bad

It was pretty much khakis and Hawaiian shirts, but the detergent that housekeeping used to clean the shirts gave me a rash sometimes. We also had sunglasses issued. It should go without saying that I had a killer farmer’s tan before returning to school.

Sometimes People Got a Little Drunk on the Job

Before work, sometimes there were wine tastings. People made drinks in the service cabanas and sipped them throughout the day. It was a boozy crowd. People came in hungover all the time and, once, a guy threw up in the bushes. I didn’t drink much at the time, nor did several Mormon co-workers of mine, so management often gave us better schedules and accommodated our requests.

You Got Better Service at the Spa Pool


The resort I worked at had two pools. Generally, the managers only put trusted employees at the spa pool because there was less supervision. I started getting shifts now and then there. On a great day, I was paired with a very awesome and enterprising woman. We split up the guests based on how we estimated the tips would fall: She got the seemingly straight men, I got the seemingly gay ones. And vice versa. Women who appeared to like women were hers, and I was granted the many husband-less housewives, who generally just wanted iced tea and small talk. One local housewife and regular guest insisted on only being served her $2,000 champagne by the same server. Even if he was working in another part of resort, we found him. And, yes, he was tipped 20%.

We Lied Pretty Often

We were basically instructed to never use the word no. We had to make things happen. We had to learn everything down to how many soaps were in the rooms, and there were many scripted phrases we had to memorize, as well. Most importantly:

Guest: Oh, wow. Cloudy day, huh?

You: Oh, that? It’s just a light marine layer. It’s supposed to burn off in the afternoon.

Of course, it wouldn’t. You knew that because a) you lived in Southern California, and b) you had read the daily one sheet that morning, which had said so. But that was in your job description: create the illusion of the most perfect day. And if a manager ever heard you say the words “June Gloom,” referring to the region’s notoriously cloudy summer, GOOD LUCK.

All of the Sexually Inappropriate Things You Can Imagine? They Happened.

People regularly asked my age, slipped me their room number, made comments about my ass, and, on occasion, grabbed my ass, too. I was actually the target of the summer’s most infamous scandal.

One day, while helping a server deliver around a dozen or so Coronas to a large party (which, oops, I wasn’t allowed to do at age 18), two women in bikinis started hitting on me. They grabbed my arm, asked my age, and called me by the name on my name tag. This went on for several hours, even though they had boyfriends. Later, the two women asked me where the clearly-marked restroom was. I pointed. Then they asked if I could walk them there, which I knew felt fishy but had never come up in our two-day training session of guest-employee role-playing. They grabbed my hands, interlocking fingers, and I led the two of them to the door of the ladies restroom. One stood behind me, another in front of me, and they asked me to come in with them while trying to push and pull me in. (This is a good time to point out that I was closeted at the time). I did not go in with them, but I will say that four breasts were exposed; a hand was forcibly shoved down my pleated, unzipped-against-my-will khaki shorts; and things were said that my editor will not allow me to share.

When they left the pool, one of the managers, a guy from Las Vegas with Farrah Fawcett hair, asked what had happened. Trembling, I explained. He told me to avoid them, but they wouldn’t leave me alone. They flashed me several times from across the pool, yelling my name. He finally called security and had them escorted off the premises. My boss sent me home. I was still shaking that night.

The rest of the summer, I was known across the property as the guy who had a threesome in the bathroom. The bartenders treated me nicer. Strangers from valet would give me high-fives in the employee locker-room. I still regret not suing for sexual assault.

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